Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Who’s Your Audience, and How Are You Dazzling ‘Em?

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Friday nights will never be the same. While you’ve been out boozing, sexting not-so random hotties, mourning the death of the CD format and its retail salability, and prepping for another losing season from Toronto FC (and the Leafs, and the Raptors, et al), I’ve been out hosting a series of Friday evening Diaspora Dialogue’s readings by several of Toronto’s diverse literary voices as part of the Toronto Public Library’s Keep Toronto Reading series. For some of my digitally-inspired homies that means I’m here to help keep Toronto reading more than 140 characters at a time.

I’ve had the opportunity to jump around different parts of Canada and the United States to perform readings, and I do now believe that shilling books outside of your own comfort zone sometimes gives you a broader perspective of why audiences even bother to come out.

Yes, those beloved reading audiences. Over the last few weeks I’ve been observing how this particular Toronto audience is reacting to the readings, only because I am getting a better chance to take it all in as a “host.” That is, the only thing I am reading is a script that introduces our literary heroes and thanking sponsors.

Wild stuff. Some, like author Stephen Marche, have brilliantly argued that some aspects of the Toronto literary scene are kinda stuffy, staid and boomer-obsessed. I got a small sampling of this on our first night. The crowd was large. And atypically diverse, for a Toronto literary event. But when the venerable spoken word dynamo Ian Kamau read a piece that demanded some kind of audience interaction, a call and response verse that craved a response, it was like the audience reminded itself that this is Toronto. Kamau implored the audience to say the word “joy” loudly. Near silence. He asks again, for the audience to scream “joy.” The response from the audience is not joyful. Is there a reason bookish audiences at Toronto area readings have been conditioned to be these lifeless, immoveable objects? I’ve seen Kamau perform this piece outdoors in front of thousands (not hundreds) of people at Nathan Phillips Square, and they’d all yelled back his words in unison. Tonight, I can hear crickets chirping (and we’re indoors, in a library, where crickets aren’t generally allowed admission, like most other cold-blooded insects).

Sometimes these awkward moments can break an author. Or make them stronger. Or remind them of the city that they are reading in. In the hip hop and digitally-inspired worlds that I occupy, Toronto is called the Screwface Capital. A place where audiences don’t respond much to anything, brilliant readings, slick-spoken-word diatribes or otherwise. While spending too much time that I can’t get back pondering our lovely, yet quiet, reading audiences, I recalled author Andrew Pyper scribing something in the National Post awhile back about the do’s and dont’s of literary readings. And then I had the pleasure of introducing him for the first night of the series. Was his reading somewhat more entertaining than your average bear (author)? Sure. As he himself expressed online, your readership can read your book on their own time (or as I might argue, during one of the many, many delays on the TTC during one’s daily commute). So why not make some attempt to wow ‘em slightly. After Ian Kamau’s spoken word piece, I asked the audience to please shake off some of that Canadian book-reading-event conservatism. And they willingly obliged. Do any of you authors out there, or scribes-in-training ever wonder who your readership might be? And how they’d respond to you reading to them? And while we’re at it, what’s their profile? Are they profile-less? I think about this all the time, as I churn out endless reams of copy. Why? Well, at the end of the day, it’s all about the readers, audiences. Without them, there is a little less of me.

And then my tomes become a part of some grand vanity publishing scheme. I’ve seen all kinds of folks, and folkies, come out to my readings, or readings hosted by moi over the last fiscal year, and here are a few highlights:

  • One of my old public school teachers, Mr. Mia, came out to an event I was reading at last year. He taught me some 30-odd years ago. I was totally stoked.
  • Mike “Pinball” Clemons came out to the launch of my last book, Fatherhood 4.0. But then again, he was one of the subjects featured within the book. But he didn’t need to be there. C’mon now, he’s Pinball Clemons, arguably one of the most-respected Torontonians across professions and disciplines. If he ran for mayor, as some journalists have tried to prod him into doing, he might win.
  • There was one guy who shares the same name as my DJ buddy Andy Williams who came out to Keep Toronto Reading and introduced himself to me as an author who’s working on a book about, er, the Toronto literary scene and it’s audiences!
  • One guy who was at this same reading a few weeks ago came over to introduce himself to me, to congratulate me for being a stellar host, and also because he had heard that we share the same surname. And we do. He whipped out some ID as proof. We are Higgins’, here us roar.
  • This one guy told me he came to the wrong venue, but stuck it out. I appreciate his honesty. Who hasn’t at some point in time in his or her life stumbled into the wrong gig? Sometimes while in a drunken stupor. Certainly not I.
  • I was out promoting a large music concert in 2006 and gave some flyers out to some groovy folks. That was in 2006. It’s 2011. And they came out to hear me host the Keep Toronto Reading event. All gravy.

Dalton Higgins is a music programmer, pop culture critic, author, broadcaster and national magazine award-winning journalist. He is Canada’s foremost expert on hip hop culture. In addition to writing numerous articles for Canadian and US print and on-line magazines, he is the author of Hip Hop World (Groundwood Books/House of Anansi) and co-author of Hip Hop (Thomson Nelson) and Much Master T: A VJ’s Journey (ECW Press). As a broadcaster, Dalton has hosted his own TV show and has appeared as a pundit on every major Canadian network. You can visit Dalton at his blog. His most recent book is Fatherhood 4.0: iDad Applications Across Cultures (Insomniac Press).

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